The lost generation: The mystery of Israel's disappeared children

Hundreds of babies from Yemenite and Sephardi families disappeared shortly after they were born, or when they had been hospitalized.

Zvi Amiri was taken from his parents as a newborn and adopted by a Ashkenazi family (photo credit: RA’ANAN COHEN)
Zvi Amiri was taken from his parents as a newborn and adopted by a Ashkenazi family
(photo credit: RA’ANAN COHEN)
Zvi Amiri was a 19-year-old kibbutz member and the father of a small baby when he was released early from the IDF due to a stomach injury. He took a job working as a clerk at Bank Hapoalim in Acre, not far from the old Amidar tenements that were built on the ruins of the old transit camp that had housed immigrants from Tunisia in the 1950s.
Amiri noticed that a number of customers who frequented the bank would stare at him, and he assumed it was because he looked too young to be working in a bank. But it didn’t cease even after he’d been working there a few months.
One day, a customer came right out and asked him if he was related to the Biton family that lived in the neighborhood.
Amiri smiled politely and replied that, no, he wasn’t. But Amiri’s denial did not stop the rumors from circulating.
Six months later, he quit his job at the bank and began working as an insurance agent, and the strange looks ceased.
Amiri’s experience mirrors the tragedy that so many others also experienced in the early years of the state. Hundreds of babies from Yemenite and Sephardi families disappeared shortly after they were born, or when they had been hospitalized. The parents were told that their babies had died suddenly, but many of the saddened parents still believe until today that in reality their children had been abducted and handed over to childless Ashkenazi families.
Endless testimonies have been gathered over the past 50 years, and only a small number of the families have been reunited with their long-lost children.
Amiri, whose biological parents were new immigrants from Tunisia, is one of the few. He succeeded in meeting his biological mother and two of his siblings. Although 30 years have passed since he was reunited with them, time has not managed to dim the pain and anger he feels.
He’s still searching for answers and missing pieces of the puzzle from his childhood.
For years, Amiri kept his mouth shut.
He stored his secret in the recesses of his tormented soul. Then, 15 years ago, he decided to break the seal and tell his story to attorney Rami Tzuberi, who was known for having reunited Yemenite children believed to be dead with their biological families. Tzuberi published a book on this subject titled Looking for My Lost Siblings.
Now that Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi has become involved in the case, and his statement that there were hundreds of children who were intentionally kidnapped, Amiri decided to go public with his story. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m optimistic. When a country decides that it needs to keep such information secret until the year 2071, this is a clear indication that the story has more than a bit of truth to it. For years I’ve been wanting to take my personal story to the Supreme Court, but I keep getting told that because of the statute of limitations I would not have a case.”
AMIRI, 63, has fond memories of his childhood in Kibbutz Amir in the Galilee.
Amiri is seen here together with his adoptive parents (Ra'anan Cohen)Amiri is seen here together with his adoptive parents (Ra'anan Cohen)
He grew up as the only child of kibbutz founders Elhanan and Tzisa Kampinski.
Amiri was thin and dark, which made him stand out among the other children of immigrants who hailed from Poland and Lithuania. Every afternoon he would go to see his parents at their house, though he slept with the other kibbutz children like everyone else. When he was five, his parents suddenly decided to leave the kibbutz and move to Rishon Lezion and change the family name to Amiri, probably in an effort to accommodate their son’s dark complexion, which did not seem to fit with the name Kampinski.
Amiri suffered greatly from the family’s move to the city, and he soon developed chronic asthma. “I loved the kibbutz and I missed my friends dearly.
When I was young, I was not aware that my parents were hiding the fact that I had been adopted. I guess that’s why we kept moving from place to place.
When I was eight, we moved to Sde Yitzhak, and from there to the outskirts of Netanya, which I liked better since it reminded me of the kibbutz. We had fruit trees in our yard, as well as chickens and dogs. Once in a while, I would go with my father down near the hotels and we would sell our apples, loquats and peaches to tourists. When I turned 11, we moved to Netanya’s city center and I fell in love with the sea. My asthma disappeared, apparently thanks to the salty air, and so I decided to attend the Naval Officers’ School in Acre.
“I wasn’t aware that I had been adopted, and I never took customers’ comments that I looked like the Biton family seriously. I didn’t work very long at the bank and then the Yom Kippur War broke out and I was called up for reserve duty. When the war was over, I began working for the Zim shipping company in Africa. When I returned, my daughter was born and I didn’t give another thought to the Biton family or my possible connection to them. Until one day, when I was 29 and my father finally told me that I had been adopted.”
AMIRI’S BIOLOGICAL parents, David and Hanna (Hanina) Biton, arrived in Acre from Tunisia in 1948. David worked in construction and Hanna as a seamstress. They had two sons and a daughter, and then Hannah became pregnant once more. Shoshana, a relative, describes her visit to see Hanna and the baby in the hospital.
Shoshana went to search for the baby in the neonatal intensive care unit and saw that Zvi had been intubated. She saw the names David and Hanna Biton written on the label. “Zvi was a beautiful baby with big eyes, and I stood there watching him for a few minutes,” she recalls.
"When a country decides that it needs to keep such information secret until the year 2071, this is a clear indication that the story has more than a bit of truth to it,’ says Amiri (Ra'anan Cohen) "When a country decides that it needs to keep such information secret until the year 2071, this is a clear indication that the story has more than a bit of truth to it,’ says Amiri (Ra'anan Cohen)
“But when I got home I had a bad feeling and so I went back to the hospital the next morning. I found Hanna crying hysterically – she said they’d told her the baby had died. I went to the NICU with her sister and we asked to speak with the doctor. I saw the incubator Zvi had been hooked up to the day before, but now there was a different baby there. All this time, two nurses were following us everywhere we went, and we noticed that they were talking about us. When we asked them where the Biton baby was, they told us he’d died.”
After losing her baby, Hanna’s life was turned upside down. She left her job and stopped taking care of the house and her children. She just cried all day long. “They stole my heart, my soul and my womb,” the mother said. She would wail when anyone asked her how she was feeling. Her mental state deteriorated even more after her husband died, and she spent years in and out of mental hospitals.
“One day I went to go see my adoptive parents in Netanya,” Amiri recalls, choosing his words carefully. “When I was leaving, my father accompanied me out and got into my car with me. He told me in a serious tone that there was something important he had to tell me.
And then he dropped this bombshell on me, telling me that I wasn’t his biological son. I was shocked. All at once comments friends had made when I was a child raced through my mind. I felt my body was being torn apart and was disconnecting from the earth. I didn’t say a word, I just sat there and listened to what my father was telling me.
“When he asked me what I wanted to do, I felt sorry for him. I guess he feared I would leave him and my mother. I didn’t cry – I was acting very rationally.
I told him that I loved him, but that I would need to find out who my biological parents were. And then he told me: my original name had been Biton.
“I felt like my whole world had come crashing down on me. I decided not to rest until I’d discovered my roots, and what my life would have been like had I grown up with my biological family. I took a leave of absence from my job and began my search for my biological family.”
AMIRI’S LIFE today is light years away from how it was when he was growing up on the secular kibbutz. Although he still has a soft spot for gefilte fish, Amiri now lives in Bnei Brak with his current wife, Rivka, works in an electrical appliance store and studies every day at Rabbi Yosef Brock’s Netivot Olam Yeshiva. Life hasn’t been easy for him since he found out about his abduction as a child.
When he’d approached the adoption agency in Haifa a few days after his conversation with his father, he said that “the office manager tried to persuade me not to search for my biological parents, but when she realized that I would not give up, she promised to get a hold of my file within a month. When the file never arrived, I had my lawyer prepare a letter, which helped the file magically appear,” Amiri recalls.
As Amiri was examining the yellowed adoption documents and the official seal on the court form, he noticed underneath it a newspaper clipping with the names of 20 children. “My eyes were immediately drawn to the name Zvi Biton, which I thought was so strange since the title of the article was, ’Do you have any information about the following children?’ I immediately realized that the adoption had been a bluff, since they’d been aware of my original family name and could have contacted them. This ’search’ had not been genuine – they’d just needed it to look like they’d really been searching for the children’s families before they could be adopted. I found the phone number and called the clerk involved.
I explained to her who I was and politely asked if they had any more information about the case, but the woman started screaming at me and asking who’d given me her phone number.
But she didn’t wait for me to reply and slammed the phone down.”
Amiri with his adoptive father, Elhanan (Ra'anan Cohen) Amiri with his adoptive father, Elhanan (Ra'anan Cohen)
AMIRI’S EX-WIFE was the first person to help on his search for his lost family.
She recalled that a family friend had worked for the Amidar housing company so she called him asking for help. He put her in touch with his former deputy, who knew exactly where the Biton family lived. And he also remembered the mother coming home from the hospital, but without a baby. Every day she would come to his office asking if he could help her find her child who’d been stolen from her. He’d felt so bad for her, and was so moved to discover that Amiri was in fact this child.
That same evening, he took Amiri to the area where the transit camp had stood and knocked on the door of one of the old buildings. The man who opened the door was the same customer from the bank who’d asked Amiri time after time if he was connected to the Biton family.
Now that his search for his biological family was getting somewhere, Amiri felt nervous, so he consulted with a friend who was a psychologist. The two of them conceived of a ploy that could have been part of a detective novel. After learning that his brother Shlomo had been killed in a traffic accident and that his mother was hospitalized in an institution, Amiri decided to approach his aunt, telling her that he was filming a documentary about the Tunisian community.
“When I arrived with my ex-wife, my aunt just stood there looking at me in shock,” Amiri recalls. “My ex-wife began asking her about the Biton family, and so I learned that I had a brother in Acre and a sister in Netanya who lives a few minutes from my adoptive parents.
“I couldn’t believe that all these years they’d been living so close to me and I didn’t even know it. A few days later, we went to visit Shlomo’s wife, and she just stood there looking at me with wide eyes. I saw a picture of my brother on the wall, and the resemblance between us was clear. Finally I began to let myself believe that my mother really hadn’t given me away, but that I’d been kidnapped, just like all the Yemenite children had been.”
Amiri’s next step was an attempt to meet his sister. He was awake all night long, tossing and turning, as he tried to think of the proper way to connect with her. Amiri’s psychologist friend suggested that he invite her to come to his clinic under the pretense that he wanted to speak with her about her older brother, Menahem, who lived in Acre. When she arrived, Amiri was sitting in a car nearby, studying her face as she approached.
When she was told about Amiri’s existence, she was very surprised. She had been a toddler when Amiri was taken, and no one had ever told her anything about him.
“She was 30 years old now and was busy taking care of our mother on her own. We arranged to meet at my adoptive parents’ house, and I remember how when she arrived, I stood up to shake her hand and she just stood there. There weren’t any kisses or hugs – in her mind I was just a stranger who looked like her siblings.
“I, on the other hand, was incredibly excited. All of a sudden I had siblings and another family.”
YET, WHEN Amiri was finally able to reunite with his biological mother, it was fraught with challenges.
“I went with my sister to the institution in Rishon Lezion where my mother was hospitalized, and I felt like I was on the set of the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. My mother thought I was my brother Shlomo. I didn’t talk to her or hug her. I just listened to her talking with my sister. I could see that she had some clear moments.
“She didn’t understand that I was her lost child, and I was advised not to tell her so as not to aggravate her delicate situation.”
At the end of her life, Hanna was moved to an institution in Pardesiya and Amiri continued to visit her there even though she didn’t know who he was. Then, eight years ago, when she was admitted to the ICU at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, Amiri decided to reveal his true identity to her.
“I told her how they took me away from her and how I’d been adopted and had grown up on a kibbutz. Tears began streaming down her cheeks.
“I knew that she had understood me.
The next day, she was feeling better and was transferred to the regular ward. When I came and stood next to her, she pulled me toward her and kissed my hand. I was so grateful for that moment. There was no doubt in my mind that she recognized me. Three days later she died.”
Amiri began the process of becoming more religious when he was 33, about four years after he found out about his biological family, and around the time of his eldest son’s bar mitzva. He began putting on tefillin and keeping Shabbat.
Not long after, he and his wife divorced and he began studying at a yeshiva.
Amiri felt like he’d been reborn.
Although Amiri’s family is originally from Tunisia, he says that he feels completely connected with the disappeared Yemenite children and says that the conspiracy continues to extend beyond that specific group. “There are five other guys who study with me at my yeshiva who have similar stories, and only one of them is Yemenite,” says Amiri.
“Every Holocaust Remembrance Day I cry as I recall the terrible pain my family has suffered. It’s inconceivable that Jews hurt other Jews so terribly.”
IN 1967, the first parliamentary inquiry committee was created, which came to the conclusion that most of the children had died, and only four had been adopted. Rabbi Uzi Meshulam and his followers, though, claimed that thousands of Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan children had been sold in the US to be used for experimentation.
In 1988, the Shalgi Commission began investigating the matter, but only in 1994 did it publish its conclusions, which were similar to those found in previous investigations. A year later, another commission of inquiry was established, which in 2001 concluded that there was no evidence of conspiracy.
At the same time, the commission declared that all related materials would remain sealed for 70 years.
“What are they afraid of?” Amiri asks angrily. “What are they trying to hide? These protocols must be made available to the public while the perpetrators are still alive. There was a mafia of individuals, including community leaders, doctors and nurses. I was stolen as a baby from the loving arms of my mother and I want to put this issue behind me.”
This story was originally published in August 2016.